Jewish students call for swift action to tackle antisemitism after Sunak meets university chancellors

Rishi Sunak has told university leaders to take "personal responsibility" for the safety of Jewish students amid a “growing rise of antisemitism on our campuses”.

The prime minister held a roundtable meeting in Downing Street on Thursday with vice chancellors of leading universities as well as a Jewish student union.

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Jewish students have said they face a "toxic" environment as a growing number of Pro-Palestine encampments are set up at universities in response to the Israel-Hamas conflict.

While there have not been violent scenes like those seen in the US, the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) has warned the rhetoric emanating from these encampments "is increasing in hostility" - and called on university leaders to do more to keep Jewish students safe.

At the meeting, the prime minister called on universities to "remain bastions of tolerance, where debate takes place with respect for others and where every student feels safe", according to a readout released by Downing Street.

He said that he was looking to university leaders to take "personal responsibility for protecting Jewish students" and adopt a "zero tolerance" approach to incidents of antisemitism, as well as any other form of hatred, prejudice, or discrimination.

Representatives from the UJS described a "year like no other" for Jewish students, with a six-fold increase in the number of antisemitic incidents since the outbreak of the war on 7 October.

University leaders recognised this challenge and discussed the importance of properly enforcing disciplinary procedures against students found to be inciting hatred or violence, while respecting the legitimate right to protest, Downing Street said.

They also also raised support for interfaith networks, cooperation with the police and use of eviction orders, where students are in clear breach of university rules.

'Universities need to draw red lines'

Edward Isaacs, president of the UJS, spoke to Sky News moments after attending the meeting.

"The prime minister was very clear that antisemitism has no place on campuses," he said.

"I'm very grateful that vice-chancellors took the time to come to Downing Street today, but ultimately we need to see any commitments made today followed by swift action.

"We are very clear - universities need to draw their red lines, and universities need to take decisive action to support Jewish students."

The meeting came as it was announced £500,000 of funding will go to the University Jewish Chaplaincy, which helps students deal with incidents of antisemitism and intimidation.

The money is part of the £7m of support announced by Jeremy Hunt in the Autumn Statement to tackle antisemitism in schools and universities.

In 2023, 182 university-related antisemitic incidents were recorded by the CST compared with 60 incidents in 2022 - a rise of 203%.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan also attended the meeting, alongside Communities Secretary Michael Gove and Security Minister Tom Tugendhat.

Oxford and Cambridge university students have set up pro-Palestinian encampments on campus lawns in recent days.

Encampments have also been set up at the universities of Manchester, Bristol, Sheffield and Newcastle while in Edinburgh five students are on a hunger strike.

The wave of university protests in the UK follows a series of violent clashes at campuses across the US, most prominently at Columbia University in New York.

Encampments have also been set up in recent days in France, Ireland and Finland.

Protest groups in the UK have called on their universities to divest from Israel in response to its military operation in Gaza, launched in the wake of the Hamas atrocities on 7 October.

This would mean selling off stock in Israeli companies or otherwise dropping financial ties.

The UCU academics union has backed students taking part in peaceful protests, saying that "freedom of speech and freedom of assembly within the law are fundamental human rights and civil liberties which must be upheld".